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If Covenant was when Morbid Angel made a real change, the moment they jumped on board
the ship setting sail for modern death metal is a move that makes sense – that can be interpreted. The year was 1993 and death metal, though it had been around for a while, was for many achieving its apex and really defining itself in what would be called a modern form. For a lot of bands the early 90’s was the setting for the departure from the house of thrash and the clenching of an identity one could truly call their own. Morbid Angel was just such a band and like it or not Covenant replaced the super fast punky rhythms and raspy harshness of the band's first two albums with a streamlined, downtuned, and overall fuller and heavier sound that would be the trademarks of death metal to come.
Some rejoiced at this development and others bemoaned it, upset by the more standard drumbeats and guitar riffs and not impressed by the brutality and speed the band would come to represent. But without getting into Covenant itself too much, it can be said that Morbid Angel had something greater in mind than that itself, and whether Covenant was the beginning of something fabulous or simply another step in a continuing path, they had a plan and a goal for something different, something that would set them apart. Their first attempt to really produce this was ‘95’s follow up, Domination – and in short, it utterly failed, setting the stage for the next two albums which were, in large part, trying to find the path once more.
The year is 1998 and the first step in the road to recovery would take the shape of Formulas Fatal to the Flesh. The simplest and most superficial observation is that this album is merely a return to Covenant era production and mixing with the riffing and drumming demonstrated on Domination – in a sense implying that we can forget about Domination and its thin and powerless production, pointlessly distorted vocals and slow, boring sections devoid of anything that could be called a “riff”. But to act as though Domination were entirely a mistake, to simply forget about and ignore it makes its successor impossible to interpret.
In the first place, “Formulas…” was the heaviest material the band had put out to date. From the first devastating chord of “Heaving Earth” it is evident that this is not just an evolution but an overreaction. After the hollow weakness of Domination, Formulas… employs an extremely crunchy, buzzy and distorted guitar tone that envelopes all the riffs, chords and harmonies. These songs have to be listened to actively and with diligence to be heard and understood. “Heaving Earth” is full of complex riffs that slip right under your nose if you’re not paying attention, and “Chamber of Dis” features some lightning fast guitar work that employs the standard chug-chug as well as some truly painful discordant harmonies. Make no mistake, this is technical death metal, just not in the style of a Necrophagist or Spawn of Possession.
The riffs are not all fast and technical though – for every face melting, finger-burning section there is one that demonstrates the harmonic brilliance of the band. “Nothing is Not” is perhaps the best example of this – a slower song featuring extremely low chords and perfectly paced mid tempo riffing that brings out the sheer power of the material here. It’s that typical death metal style but with Trey Azagthoth’s soon-to-be-trademark sluggishness and sludginess. Songs like “Umulamahri” trudge along deliberately, as though resisted at every step but forging ever forward with unstoppable force. Here is the sonic precursor to the sludgefest that is Gateways to Annihilation, probably Morbid Angel’s most definitive statement of uniqueness and originality coupled with precise and controlled power. This is the legacy of Domination, what the album should have and tried to achieve without nearly any success.
Of course, the most glaring difference between the two albums are the vocals. David Vincent has departed and in his place is Steve Tucker who is just about as perfect a fit as there could be. His vocals are very low but not that guttural – more of a very harsh, rasping bark. The sort of flat quality to his delivery allows his outbursts to glide along the surface of the instrumental juggernaut that they accompany and complement the discordant, dissonant element of the sound. His barks are fast and his timing is excellent, allowing him to keep up with the faster sections, and he never falls into the sort of muddy, incoherent gurgling that, while enjoyable, would detract from the contained madness that this album is.
Depth is another quality that sets apart the music found here. Whereas Domination was overly transparent, with all the sounds too isolated and unable to cohere with the necessary power of a death metal offering, Formulas… is immersible in the best way. All the sounds layer perfectly on top of one another in a decipherable yet obscured fashion so that they at once individually overpower everything else and work together to form a massive whole. On the low end, Pete Sandoval’s drumming demonstrates how all metal drums should sound: the bass drum is deep and low, loud yet not triggered to death so that it covers everything else, with the sort of soft thud that makes it almost enchanting; tom hits are marked by a very percussive quality – they sound like a drum, not just like their actual note; the snare is perfectly crisp, rising up above all the others with that prefect amount of reverb – it pops when he blasts and yet flows smoothly when he wants it to. Aside from the tone, the drumbeats are almost all great. His blasting is crazy fast, as on “Heaving Earth” and “Chambers of Dis” and his double bass beats are groovy and catchy as on “Nothing is Not” and “Prayer of Hatred.” Fills are fast and well placed but never overdone or overabundant. Pete, like the rest of the band, perfectly toes the line of technicality, mixing in just enough to impress and amaze without sacrificing the identity or functionality of any song.
But there’s a whole other side of this album that hasn’t even been mentioned – the genius and novelty of Trey Azagthoth. I could write this whole review about his riffs alone and that wouldn’t even do him justice. Aside from the fast, heavy, technical riffs and awesome harmonies there are the mind-bending solos. “Heaving Earth” gives the first taste, this one short but sweet, a lick ascending from utter darkness into magnificent splendor and then burning out, like a sunflare erupting from the molten surface. “Chambers of Dis” has two, each featuring blazing shredding and whining, high strung chords that tear at the fibers of the mind. Trey passes seamlessly from high to low, at times dropping so far he can barely be heard and at others soaring so high the sounds are barely distinguishable as actual notes. “Covenant of Death” features some classic tapping and arpeggios with the typical overdose of gain out of which bursts forth a great melodic lead traveling at light speed. And there are many others. Throughout the album are the haunting melodies of Azagthoth, dancing along the surface of the crunchy guitar tone, meandering into and out of the hellish miasma underneath. When he wants to he can be extremely melodic, such as the end of “Covenant of Death” and the incredible next song, “Hymn to a Gas Giant.” Trey’s guitar work here is at times like a caustic sludge, at others like an eruption into flame and at others like a flare of nebular gases sublimely wafting through the void. He touches upon the greatest evils of the mortal world and the most supreme limits of existence just as this album traverses an equally vast and analogous region. Nothing could demonstrate this better than the final true song on the album, “Invocation to a Continual One,” a microcosm of the album itself, containing, within its nearly 10 minutes every feature of the album mentioned above packaged within the kind of punky beats of the band’s older material, as though to show you, all at once, where they were, where they are and, presumably, where they’re headed.
This album is everything Domination should have been: starting with a standard death metal formula it incorporates even heavier, sludgier tones, fast and brutal drumming and rhythms, powerful and abrasive vocals, coherent and compelling songwriting and enchanting melodies. After Domination, Morbid Angel not only made up the distance between Covenant and its desired successor but, perhaps drawing from the mistakes and shortcomings, took a whole step further towards what I believe they envisioned to be their goal. It encompasses the whole range of mortal existence, from the depth of evil to the domain of the gods and through it courses imminent, absolute power.